“Ich bin hier.”
It’s what I’ve been signing to Fieke for as long as I can remember. Sometimes angrily, sometimes in self-pity, sometimes as if to remind myself.
“Ich bin hier!” I am here.
Talk to me; let me respond with shaking hands, with pen, with music notes spilling from a stage. Allow me to tell you my secrets.
Using anything but this void- this voiceless mouth.
I hand him a book, tapping the spine so he can see it. “Orchid”, I mouth. We’re volunteering in the school’s library, arranging the children’s books in rainbow order.
“How is orchid a color? It is already a plant. Is that not enough of a thing to be?”
I try to hold back a smile, and he elbows me. Leaning into him, I keep tapping the spines, pretending I can hear notes coming together.
He doesn’t meet my eyes. He can see me without doing so. The dull purple reflects in the black of his goggles.
Him, lacking eyes; me, lacking a tongue. Sometimes I wonder if we make up for each other’s emptiness, or if this just makes the both of us worse. Creating black holes in the inches between us.
He sees using sound- some kind of echolocation. So I’m always tapping, trying to illuminate the world. Or maybe just myself.
Ich bin hier.
“If you can’t handle work this simple,” the librarian, Frau Pruwitt, says, “how do you expect to get along in a respectable school?”
She’s not talking to me.
I hear his breath catch, sense his anxiety. I start tapping. My nervous energy rushes the beat.
Flowing water escapes my reach.
“Tomorrow,” I trace carefully on his arm, “come over.”
I laugh at his questioning reply. “It’s a surprise!”
And it takes him a minute to meet my eyes. But when he does, he’s smiling.
My phone chimes.
Gutschein? (“Rain check?”)
I can’t help but worry.
Ist alles ok? (“Is everything ok?”)
I imagine text-to-speech reading my message to him, explaining the words trapped inside a flat surface. Impossible for him to see.
Ich habe erkrankt. Es tut mir so leid. (“I’ve fallen ill. So sorry.”)
It could easily be a lie, but I want to believe in him more than that. Still, it’s difficult. I feel like I'm making a song with all the wrong notes.
Even a change of key can’t fix it.
He’s not home. I leave his gift- an orchid- with his father.
Get well soon.
I pull out my phone once I’m back home. Of course, Fieke is furious at him. She’s my sister- the only family I have left. Of course she’s protective. I just want to know the truth.
Hey, Moritz. Looks like you decided to surprise me today instead. Frau Pruwitt said you left angry. But we could have talked about it. You didn’t have to lie. You never asked me what I thought about you switching schools. You clam up! But I know that if I had a chance to leave Bernholdt-Regen, you would send me on my way. I’ll miss your frown. But Kreiszig isn’t that big.
It doesn’t take long for him to respond.
Some of the schools aren’t in Kreiszig.
I’m apologizing. Profusely.
Another pause. A breath of hesitation. I hope it doesn’t knock down this house of cards I’ve built.
Apologize in person.
You said “rain check”. That part better not have been a lie!
It wasn’t a lie.
“Owen,” he whispers. “I haven’t apologized.”
“Owen. The orchid smelled like cinnamon.”
I am here. For the first time, it’s for someone else.
“If you think this is going to get you closer to him somehow- wake up. He’ll think you’re an idiot or he’ll think you’re being cute. He doesn’t take you seriously.” Fieke rants. We’re sitting in the pub, as usual.
All I can do is sign furiously in response, filled with the urge to scream.
I just want a chance.
Of course, he appears. I pick up my phone, tap away at my latest project. Fail to block out their conversation. Their voices raise, and when I look up, the air has changed to ice and fire.
I gaze at the two in disbelief. When did I become an accessory? When did I lose what little voice I had left?
Fieke slams her fist on the table.
I stand. I walk to the empty microphone in the front of the bar. Clutching it in my hands, I make eye contact with them. I stand on the tiny stage, mouthing the same words I always have. Yet, I’m silent.
“Ich bin hier.”
“Ich bin hier.”
“Ich bin hier!”
I am here.
It’s 4 am.
I want to listen. If you want to speak.
I’m angry. But I still respond.
If you’re doing this out of pity, forget it!
You shouldn’t believe everything your sister says.
Leave her out of it. And you’re still talking down to me.
I’m sorry. It isn’t intentional.
It never is. People think that being silent is the same as having nothing to say. It’s not.
I don’t think you have nothing to say. Your actions speak volumes. Tomes of chronicles of volumes.
You can never say things simply.
And you have a terrible sense of humor!
God. I can never stay mad.
You mean a great deal to me, Owen.
I need to hear that more.
He doesn’t respond. I knew he wouldn’t.
I walk into the pub nearly an hour late. I’m still surprised he got there first. Tapping on my phone, I slide into the chair across from him. Only when I’m finally done do I pull out a pen and start writing on a napkin.
Why did you want to see me Moritz.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Our conversation is long and fruitless. Frankly, it just leaves me exhausted. He’s constantly busy; am I not allowed to be?
Eventually, I fill up the last space on the napkin.
Have to go, DJing downtown.
He offers to come. And though he’s abysmal at reading sign language, I refuse to pull out another napkin; it’ll just invite more conversation.
I have to repeat myself, but he gets the message.
“I don’t want you to.”
I manage to leave without revealing my feelings once.
He shows up at my apartment a few days later. Fieke leaves immediately.
We exchange small smiles as the atmosphere slowly shifts from fear to comfort and back again.
“What are you up to?” He sits next to me and gingerly places his head on my shoulder.
I turn my computer screen away, before belatedly realizing the movement was pointless. He can’t see screens.
I type into my computer, the electronic voice reading my answer. “I set up a text-based role-playing forum. Weeks ago.”
His expression turns surprised, then vaguely interested. When he questions me further, I explain the premise to him. “This is an MORPG about the lives of superhuman kids created in a secret laboratory on the edge of Germany’s Tharandt Forest. Set a decade ago.”
He sits up, borderline panicked. “Beg pardon?”
It’s where he lost his eyes- as a child stuck in a laboratory that his mother ran. They were trying to fix his heart, he told me. They altered his genetic code when he was only a fetus. Obviously, it failed. He not only lost his eyes, but his heart doesn’t work properly either. He still uses a pacemaker.
The scientists experimented on other kids too. Dozens, now scattered across the world- each with a different mutation.
I’m not one of them.
I explain further, “I’m trying to connect with the kids you knew…”
“How could you do this?”
I half close my laptop. This isn’t what I wanted. “I did this for you. I thought you’d want to meet the others.”
“No. I only wish to meet one of them.”
As he slowly inches away, I understand.
A boy he’s been writing to for nearly two years. Who he’s known for longer than he’s known me. A boy who lives over 8,000 km away, in the middle of America. A boy who I wrote to recently.
The boy who helped me create this forum.
I wonder if he knows.
I can’t bring myself to ask.
Our argument is long and by the end I thought I’d run out of both patience and misery. But when I kick him out and slam the door, I sob.
The next time I see him, I’m with a boy who introduced himself as Max. We’re standing outside his university. It’s the same one Moritz goes to.
When Moritz comes near us, I can tell that something’s off. He reacts far too slowly, walks unsteadily. Max doesn’t see a problem. He walks forward, claps Moritz on the back.
“Nice to see you. This is… well, he’s very quiet. I didn’t get his name.”
“His name’s Owen,” he responds.
I don’t bother signing.
The last time I see Moritz is at the airport- overall, a fitting spot for a goodbye. Fieke is leaving with him. Somehow, they ended up working everything out. I know now that we weren’t meant to.
Others from the forum came to meet him; he ended up using it after all. They’re the ones who helped him locate his mother. He’s leaving for America to meet her. Maybe he’ll see the boy too.
He turns to me last. I can tell he wants to speak, so I hold up a finger. Scrawling in a notebook, I hold it out to him.
Moderator. Username bachandbeyond
Like the others, I introduced myself using my titles from the forum.
I can feel his regret.
“All you’ve done. The board. This flight. I could thank you a thousand times, and you’d deserve more.”
I’m trying to pinpoint my feelings. I’m not vexed, or even sad anymore. It’s bittersweet. There’s nothing left of us, is there?
“Have I ever known you, Owen?”
But you heard me.